I was listening to some political analysis on NPR recently, and the reporter noted a new trend that had surfaced in the GOP primary. A handful of candidates, led by Donald Trump, have dispensed with the traditional model of dealing with the media: rather than sending spokespeople to deliver an official message on the candidate’s behalf, the candidates themselves are now communicating directly with their constituents and the general public through social media, often bypassing the journalists assigned to cover them.
Of course, the use of digital media in politics is nothing new; Howard Dean rode a wave of Internet buzz and online outreach to emerge from the pack in 2003. Subsequent campaigns, most notably President Obama’s in 2008 and 2012, have become increasingly adept at collecting voter information and using social media to forge connections with voters, keep them informed, and mobilize them as election day draws near.
Why is this latest development notable? Beyond making the position of political flack somewhat obsolete, it also signals the flagging relevance of mainstream media in setting the narrative. Traditional journalists are now just another voice in the conversation—and often no longer the most important one. Each news cycle is filled with lonely bells tolling, manifested in Donald Trump’s latest Twitter feud with Jeb Bush or his running commentary on the Democratic debate. To some, this is a sign of progress—direct, unfiltered access to our candidates for elected office.
The move by candidates to cut out the middle man and talk straight to the audience parallels business communications and the approach companies should take to their thought leadership efforts. We’ve written before about how the gatekeeper model, in which businesses try to get their content placed with established media franchises that have a guaranteed audience, has become just one of many tactics. Thanks to social media and online marketing, companies can now syndicate their knowledge in a variety of ways.
Of course, companies face the challenge of how to ensure that their ideas rise above the din of the competition. Two elements are needed: first, they must have something distinctive to say or at least a distinctive, memorable way to say it. (One could make the argument that the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump owes as much to their direct style as the substance of their ideas—the former quality being helpful in today’s sound bite–driven society.) Second, companies must clearly define their audience and have an understanding of where and how that audience searches for answers to their business questions.
While marketers dream of going viral, a carefully targeted effort that reaches the right audience can have a greater impact. For a tech company seeking to connect with CIOs at Fortune 500 companies, for instance, getting an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal would be a lower priority than, say, devising a digital advertising campaign that piggy-backed on the online publications of CIO or Wired.
Rather than feeling angst about the fall of the old model, companies should be energized. One gatekeeper is no longer able to determine whether their insights get a thorough airing. The market is the arbiter of what has value, and that opens up tremendous opportunities for businesses to connect with their audience.